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Inside Iran: Extremism and Moderation in Qom | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat- On the way to Qom (97 kilometers from Tehran and better reached by road), taxi driver Bahram, an Iranian youth who studied arts and photography but found no job in Tehran, hence working as taxi driver from time to time, said: “What do you want to see in Qom? It has nothing but clerics. I’m fed up with clerics because I have been seeing them for the last 30 years.” Then he played an Elton John CD all the way to the city, which he said he did not like.

Qom is one of 30 Iranian provinces. The capital city is Qom, Iran’s spiritual and religious capital besides Tehran (the political capital) and Isfahan (the cultural capital). Qom is also Iran’s second city in terms of religious importance after Mashhad (the name of which is derived from ‘shaheed’ the Arabic for martyr, because of the large number of martyrs killed there according to the Iranians). It accommodates the tomb of Imam al Reza, the eighth Shiaa Imam. Qom is not popular among many Iranians who consider it and it’s Hawza [religious seminary] as the de facto rulers of Iran. Tehran’s politicians, or at least those among them who are affiliated with the conservative current, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, take the major part of their authorities from Qom rather than Tehran.

Many Iranians with a public education feel that this small city has kidnapped Iran. There are many advantages gained by Qom’s clerics during the two years under Ahmadinejad, not least of which is the appointment of a number of mullahs to the rectorship of Iran’s most prestigious universities, including the universities of Tehran and Isfahan. However, Qom is very popular amongst religious students almost throughout the world and they come to study the Shia fiqh at its hawza. The term al Hawza al Ilmiyya refers to the place where several religious schools exist and teach the Shia fiqh and has a considerable number of Ayatollahs. Containing students from around the globe, the hawza also has teachers from across the world, including America.

The population of Qom is 1.5 millions. It is a barren city with largely poor architecture and economy. A visitor will see only very simple houses and quiet streets that have a fraction of the cars compared with Tehran. Clerics wear turbans and black cloaks and ride motorcycles. The city has desert climate and scarce rains. Having no gardens or trees, the city does not feature beautiful landscapes but only barren desert slopes. That is why Qom’s carpet industry is known for portraying landscapes, water and vegetation to make for their absence in the everyday life. Qom also lacks natural resources and most of its land is uncultivable due to the climate, especially the land immediately adjacent to salt lakes.

In addition to the hawza and its schools, Qom’s key landmarks include the mosque of Sayyeda Fatima bint Imam Musa al Kazim bin Jaafar al Sadiq, the seventh Shiaa Imam (born on November 1, 745 AD in Medina and died on September 4, 799 in Baghdad). She is sister of Imam Ali Musa al Reza, the eighth Shiaa Imam (January 1, 766 – May 26, 818) who is also known as Imam al Reza.

The shrine of the infallible lady, as she is referred to in Iran, who died and was buried in Qom en route to visit her brother Imam al Reza, was built on her tomb. Earlier, Qom had been a simple village but once Sayyeda Fatima was buried there, people built their houses near the tomb, and as a result it expanded gradually and grew in area. In the 17th century, Shah Abbas I, one of Iran’s prominent rulers at that time, built the shrine as we know it today, only for it to become the chief attraction of the city and the center around which Qom revolves. Iranians come from other cities and Shiaa from outside Iran to visit the place. Non-Muslims are banned from entering Sayyeda Fatima’s shrine. Both inside and outside Qom, general tight security measures are taken. Beside Sayyeda Fatima’s tomb, other tombs were built for prominent clerics in the history of the city. Now, the infallible lady’s shrine houses many tombs under its golden dome. Wherever you turn around in Qom, you find religious signs and prayers such as “Oh, Fatima,” “Abu al Fadl al Abbas” and Oh, Hussain,” signs that you find on shops that sell woman clothes, on public and private transportations in the city, food shops and, of course, on mosques and religious schools.

If the shrine did not succeed in turning Qom into a commercial and economic city, it did turn it into a religious and educational center. Clerics used to sit in rings with their students and give them religious lessons. Over time, the practice developed until the appearance of the present-day hawza. The deterioration of the status of the Najaf Hawza (which was established in the 11th Century), over the last century due to political events in Iraq, consolidated the position of the Qom al Hawza al Ilmiyya, which began to gain popularity outside Iran during the reign of the Safavids when Iran was formally converted to Shiaa Islam.

Like Tehran, Qom did not survive the Chinese invasion, as one can see in its simple downtown bazaar the Chinese goods. They are sold everywhere at cheap prices, which suits the financial capabilities of the great majority of the hawza students who live on small incomes from their teachers. At the entrance to the bazaar, a youth sat on the ground selling Chinese-made toys to children. After that, several shops sold furnishings and kitchen appliances and clothes. Many of the shops were closed as it is usual for the Qom bazaar merchants to close their shops during lunchtime. They go home to have their meals then return to work until 5 or 6pm. Despite the slight turnover and dearth of shoppers, you cannot hear them hawking their goods to attract potential buyers.

In the centre of the city and south of the “Martyrs Square,” there is a simple house that is adorned by black flags and has religious slogans written on it and a sign in Farsi that reads, “This was Imam Khomeini’s house before he was sent into exile in Iraq by the Shah”. The house is very simple; it does not have any guards outside, and has remained the same since Khomeini left.

Unlike Tehran, all Qom’s women wear long black chadors. All non-resident women have to comply with this dress code and female visitors from Tehran or abroad have to enter the city wearing the chador or a long black coat. Otherwise, they would be the object of staring and disapproving comments on streets. A chador is often black, with no face cover. Niqab is so rare in Iran that a female passerby in Qom wearing a niqab drew comments from other passers-by.

However, like everything in Iran, Qom is a city of contradictions. It is the city that gave birth to Imam Khomeini, the Iranian Revolution and political Islam. Now, it is the city of Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi, who is highly conservative in his political and social thinking. On the other hand, it is the city of Grand Ayatollah Yousef Saanei, the women’s mufti who has liberal ideology and advocates reformists.

Qom’s hawza enjoys plurality. Each and every Ayatollah enjoys the freedom of thinking and speech in his fatwas and at school with his students. To demonstrate that the Qom hawza is not subject to pre-conceived judgments and can shift in the blink of an eye, its rising star today is Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran and member of the Assembly of Experts. If the name of Mohammad Khatami is the name most frequently reiterated in Tehran without being solicited, the name of Rafsanjani is the name most frequently reiterated in Qom without being solicited too.

Rafsanjani (whom people used to break out in protest against in hawza when he came to meet students and Qom people before the election, according to Ayatollah Saanei), was voted for during the last Assembly of Experts election by conservative clerics and students from the hawza, not least of whom was Hujjat al Islam Muhsin Gharfian, the prominent disciple of Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad’s godfather. When Asharq Al-Awsat asked Gharfian why he voted for Rafsanjani rather than for his teacher Yazdi, his reply was similar to Aristotle’s “Plato is my teacher, however Truth is greater than Plato.”

Ayatollah Saanei was not only enthusiastic about Rafsanjani’s growing popularity at the Hawza. He even told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran needed men like Rafsanjani who are experienced in political administration and that in the upcoming presidential election the Iranians might vote for Rafsanjani or a similar person.

Study at the hawza lasts for almost a lifetime for those who want to reach the highest rank of Ayatollah. However, those who want to see other things in the world beyond Qom can attend as short as 3-5 years of study to attain the degree of “muballigh”. Hawza students commence their study with fiqh, theology, Prophetic hadith, Quranic interpretation, philosophy and Arabic literature. Then they proceed to the second (intermediate) stage, which is called the “surface” stage, referring to direct reading of books and self-study. Then a student learns logical judgment. It usually takes eight years to complete this second stage. The third (advanced) level is called the “external” stage, which means students who study beyond books – it is the stage of research.

The highest-ranking hawzah degrees are Ayatollah and religious marja’a [the highest echelons of the Shiaa clergy], a rank that allows its holder to issue fatwas on the everyday affairs of Muslims. After the Holy Quran, a marja’a is the second source in the Shia fiqh who is entitled to issue Shariah rulings. Each marja’a has to compile a so-called “message” that contains all his fatwas related to the everyday affairs of Muslims. It is then printed and circulated to his “muqallids” as a reference book. Ayatollah is not necessarily a Marja, but a Marja is necessarily an Ayatollah. Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi, for example, is not a Marja.

One key phenomenon at the Hawza is the plurality of religious references. Unlike the Catholics who have one Pope, the Shiaa do not have one but rather several references. It is up to the person to choose the reference that he/she wants to imitate and follow their lead in fatwas. However, the plurality of religious references does not only imply the diversity of the hawza, but also that existence of competition amongst the various references. For instance, some references may have more liberal views on music and movies than other ones. Some of them are inclined to the reformists while others to the conservatives. In this sense, the hawza is a highly politicized place, with its religious affairs mingling with political affairs. On account of the plurality of religious references, there are multiple and clashing views. They might clash to the extent that a senior reference might be sent to jail over his ideas.

One such Ayatollah who had been placed under house arrest is Ayatollah Sadiq Rouhani after he criticized Ayatollah Montazari following the latter’s nomination by the Assembly of Experts to succeed Khomeini as the Supreme Guide of Iran. During his period under house arrest, he wrote an open letter to the then Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, criticizing his social policies that he said contradicted his fatwas, including the prohibition of chess playing and music.

Ayatollah Muhammad al Shirazi was also placed under house arrest in Qom following a fatwa that prohibited Iranians to fight back the Iraqi army during the war with Iraq based on the prohibited shedding of Muslim blood. However, the then Supreme Guide of Iran Ayatollah al Khomeini said al Shirazi’s fatwa threatened Iran’s security and ordered him placed under house arrest. Another Ayatollah, Hasan al Tabatabaei, was also placed under house arrest over his opposition to the Iraq-Iran war.

The list of Ayatollahs who were placed under house arrest include, Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, over his presumed role in the coup attempt against the Iranian government in 1982, Ayatollah Mohammad Taher Shobayr Khaqani, over his alleged role in helping Iraq in 1980, Ayatollah Montazari over his criticisms of Supreme Guide of Iran Ali Khamenei in 1997 and Ayatollah Yaqub al Din Rastajari, over his anti-Sunnites book that lead to turmoil in Iran’s Sunni regions in 1994. Since 2003, no chief Iranian reference has been placed under house arrest.

Women have their own share of the Hawza. They have a school and study all religious sciences studied by men, following the same system. They can obtain the degree of “Muballigh” or “Mujtahid” and are also entitled to issue fatwas.

The great majority of Ayatollahs have their own multi-language Websites that feature at least three languages–Farsi, Arabic and English. On the various sites, you can find questions and fatwas relating to everything from traditional questions of fiqh to the legal status of Internet chat, marriage and friendship via the internet, unauthorized copying of DVDs and CDs and questions of intellectual property.

Al Hawza al Ilmiyya is not only found in Qom, there is the Hawza of Najaf, the Qom-style Hawza Ilmiyya of London, Imam Hussain University Hawza in Canada and Hawzat al Qaem (after Imam al Qaem al Mahdi) in Texas, USA, (which, according to website states that it follows the same study approach of the Najaf and Qom hawzas). The common languages of teaching at the hawza are Farsi, Arabic and Turkish, but research languages include English and French.

When you talk to clerics or students at the hawza, they simply mention the names of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Descartes, Habermas and other logicians and philosophers (or logical philosophers). In part, this is historically attributed to the Mutazilite ideology that is based on interpretation, questioning and deduction, and in another to an educational program financed by the Supreme Guide Ali Khameni to send Hawza students to study overseas, including the United States. When I asked a cleric in Qom, he looked surprised and said that the Sunnites have traditional views on the hawzah and that it is an open place on ideas from around the world. After one day in Qom, I knew what he meant, as the hawza involved reformists, liberals, conservative clerics, highly conservative clerics and pragmatists, who look most powerful now.